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"We're still in the first minutes of the first day of the Internet revolution." – Scott Cook

Secret Purpose of WikiLeaks

The controversy over the WikiLeaks website (www.wikileaks.org) raises important issues regarding freedom of expression, informational ethics, censorship, and national security. While WikiLeaks is protected by the first amendment laws that protect other news agencies in the United States, WikiLeaks does not adhere to the same journalistic ethics that other news organizations use in their publications, i.e., publishing social security numbers. The team behind the WikiLeaks organization has an agenda to expose and shame governments that they feel are unethical and corrupt.  They believe that secrecy is a symptom of an unhealthy government and that freedom of information is the cure. Their methods to arrive at this solution, however, may be legal, but also unethical.

WikiLeaks defines itself as a media organization that strives “to bring important news and information to the public,” but unlike other media organizations, such as the New York Times or Washington Post, WikiLeaks publishes all of its original source material alongside its news stories. Source material includes, but is not limited to, classified government documents from countries all over the world, classified email messages and email addresses, banking transactions, social security numbers, and sensitive documents from powerful corporations and religious groups. WikiLeaks justifies its actions based on the belief that governments and their corporations should be transparent and accountable for their actions.

WikiLeaks describes itself as a “multijurisdictional public service designed to protect whistle-blowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public,”  Many people view leaking information as unethical because it requires a change of loyalties or a betrayal within an organization, government, or business. Leaking information within an organization requires not only breaking the rules, but breaking them to specifically expose unethical behavior of the leaders. WikiLeaks believes in “principled leaking,” that is, when a person on the inside of a company defects (break the rules inside the organization) to obey the higher principles of his or her society.

This is precisely what happened when Bradley Manning, a disgruntled army private became disillusioned over America’s foreign policy. In May of 2010, Manning supplied WikiLeaks with the largest set of confidential documents ever released into the public domain, which includes more than a quarter of a million United States diplomatic cables; a classified video of a 2007 Iraqi airstrike; and a classified video of an airstrike in Granai, Afghanistan, where 145 civilians may have been killed, including 93 children.

In November 2010, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief, began posting the stolen documents and overnight, he became the US government’s most despised man, next to Osama Bin Laden. The Pentagon desperately tried to shut down the WikiLeaks website, but no court of law would allow this because WikiLeaks did not actively steal the material. The Obama administration discussed possible ways to prosecute those responsible for the leaks. Many Americans wanted military action taken against Assange and his team for acts of espionage claiming that the leaked documents put U.S. military personnel and U.S. interests at risk. “This is the kind of information that can get people killed. It also raises the data release to a new level of criminality,” a Washington Times editorial read. “These secret reports have the greatest possibility of causing deadly consequences, which under the American legal tradition is why those who leaked them should be held accountable.”

Because WikiLeaks had broken no laws, the U.S. government had to find innovative ways to crackdown on WikiLeaks, so with the help of the French government, they attempted to choke WikiLeaks’ operations through what is called  “intermediary censorship.”  They restricted the flow of money to WikiLeaks bank accounts (95% of it) by convincing PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa to block customers from donating money. They also convinced Amazon and OVH to stop hosting the WikiLeaks website.

In his excellent article, “The issues at stake with WikiLeaks,” Shaken Spiel points out that the crackdown on WikiLeaks has drawn much attention to the issue of free speech and to the notion that  “(cyber-) space” is a place for protected free speech, but the fact is that “the internet is almost entirely privately held and websites are bound to the terms of service written by online service providers.”  Spiel asks, “To what extent can we rely on privately owned spaces (i.e. services) for use to carry out our free speech?”

Many respected journalists feel that Assange’s goals are irresponsible and hypocritical.  While he harshly judges superpowers as too secretive and irresponsible, Assange also relies on secrecy (of his sources) and detaches from the consequences of his actions, never apologizing and never showing remorse. Assange has used the term “collateral damage” (which he despises) to describe the tragedies that may occur as a result of publishing military secrets on WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks claims to be motivated by universal truths and universal principles regarding human rights. The WikiLeaks website states:

“The broader principles on which our work is based are the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history. We derive these principles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “

The dilemma with leaks is that the disclosure of sensitive documents relies mostly on the emotional nature of the ‘leaker.’ Depending on the emotional state and motives of the leaker, the subject or topic may even be irrelevant so long as it is adequately shames and humiliates the other party.  Some leaks may be accidental; others may be motivated by political fundamentalism – often connected to rivalries within organizations and parties. However, the American Library Associations’ (ALA) Bill of Rights specifically states that “Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.”

In their article, “WikiLeaks is a wake-up call for openness,” the authors Brian, McDermott, and Weins point out how the WikiLeaks controversy exposes the biggest problem in our government today: too much secrecy.  The authors believe that there are serious problems connected with ongoing and excessive U.S. Government secrecy, especially regarding the overclassification of government records. The authors want the government to develop a safe system for whistleblowers to report unethical behavior and they want the government to allow the public opportunities to know and criticize what their government is doing.

During a congressional hearing in 2004 (Too Many Secrets, 2004), the following statement was made:
“ ‘An old maxim of military strategy warns, He who protects everything protects nothing.’  Nevertheless, the United States today attempts to shield an immense, and growing, body of secrets using an incomprehensibly complex system of classifications and safeguard requirements. As a result, no one can say with any degree of certainty how much is classified, how much needs to be declassified or whether the nation’s real secrets can be adequately protected in a system so bloated it often does not distinguish between the critically important and comically irrelevant.”

According to Brian, McDermott, and Weins, the 9/11 Commission in 2004 criticized the government for  “excessive secrecy, concluding that Washington stamps ‘classified’ on too many documents, which keeps vital information hidden from Congress and the public and undermines efforts to thwart terrorism.”  The authors fear (as does Spiel) that the reaction by the White House and Congress to the WikiLeaks controversy may be a sign that the problem will become worse before it gets better. They fear that the Espionage Act of 1917 will be amended so that people reproducing already leaked information can be convicted of espionage.  This would mean that anyone who writes about the information posted in WikiLeaks could be convicted of espionage.

Even if Julian Assange’s idealistic vision is nothing more than a rationalization for humiliating government officials and their friends, which is highly probable, it shouldn’t matter.  His defiant behavior is another symptom of a system with serious problems regarding freedom of information and secrecy.  Most likely, the WikiLeaks team will confront the same emotions and paradoxes that people in power are confronted with at times: the joy of saving people’s lives and the pain of ruining people’s lives.  It is probably obvious to any human being, without being articulated, that the secret purpose of WikiLeaks is to humiliate governments, their officials, and their friends by exposing behavior that is meant to be kept private. Humiliating a government, organization, or person never solves problems. If anything, it is going to create more problems, more retaliation and more humiliation for everyone involved.



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